Cuisine and culinary talent of Italy’s Mola di Bari abound at fine U.S. restaurants

Cuisine and culinary talent of Italy’s Mola di Bari abound at fine U.S. restaurants

With the recent proliferation of restaurants featuring the food styles of Italy’s Puglia region, it’s fascinating to trace many of them to one small seaport town, Mola di Bari, a few kilometers from Bari.

There are dozens of such restaurants in and around New York City because twice as many Molese natives live in the tri-state area as reside at home in the heel of the Italian boot. Mola di Bari’s population is 27,000. Its sons, daughters and their children now number 50,000 in Greater New York alone.

Restaurants such as Il Cortile [3], Primola, Nicola, Cellini, Elio’s, Girasole, Tini, Spazzo, La Masseria [4], Bocelli, Hostaria Mazzei [5], Osteria Gelsi, Parma, Sette, Triangolo, Pinocchio, Bella Vitae, Michael’s of Brooklyn, and Italianissimo are but some outposts of the wave of chefs from the seaside town.

Mola di Bari also is represented in kitchens and ownership ranks across the country, at Tuscany in West Hartford, Conn.; Il Trullo in Kansas City, Mo.; Sante and Aurora in La Jolla, Calif.; and Umbria in San Francisco.

This Mola moment in America’s restaurants was four decades in the making.

Years ago, guests asked for knives and spoons with their pasta at New York’s Italian restaurants. The best Key lime pie in town, not tiramisu or panna cotta, was served at Aperitivo. Limes aside, this midtown restaurant’s kitchen was one of many influenced by the region of Abruzzo, known as La Patria dei Cuochi, the Homeland of Cooks. A culinary and hotel management school had taken root in the region in 1943 at Villa Santa Maria. With the war’s end, graduates emigrated with flank speed toward new opportunities and a world of new ingredients.

Abruzzo-trained chefs prepared Saltimbocca alla Romana and tended risotto pots in many formative Italian eateries, such as those of Romeo Salta and Armando Orsini, both beginning long runs in 1953. This was decades before chefs attained star status, and the hard-working brigades were, for the most part, completely anonymous. But the industry knew their pedigree and aspired to hire it.

In the meantime, tiny Mola di Bari had no school for cooks. But the men of the village were learning from the most compelling teacher of all: hunger. Mola had the benefit of the Adriatic’s busiest fleet of fishing boats going to sea every day and small-plot farms devoted to olives, grapes, chicory, beans, eggplant, artichokes, broccoli rabe and onions.

Lamb, rabbit and other small animals were a great rarity.

In fact, though Puglia was producing 40 percent of Italy’s olive oil, most Molese kitchens had only lard, as the prized oil went to the wealthier residents. Conditions were such that eggplant was known as “the meat of the land.” The twice-daily pick of the fish market crop—there was no refrigeration then and what was caught had to be sold quickly—went to the more affluent.

Donato Deserio, chef-partner in Manhattan’s Osteria Gelsi and a pivotal figure in the proliferation of Pugliese cuisine in the United States, remembers the situation well.

“We had stale bread at home, and we wanted better,” he said. “We saw it when we shopped for the rich people, delivered it and smelled the good food in the kitchen. We’d see the cook preparing meats. At home, we always had pasta fagiole, chicory, fava and other beans while the wealthy were having a feast.

“It seemed as if there was a 50-50 balance between rich and poor. No middle class. We’d eat polenta with croutons on it every day.”

Perhaps because of the scarcity of better ingredients, or, sometimes not much to eat at all, food took on huge importance.

Deserio watched with utmost intensity as his mother, grandmother and aunt worked small miracles with the humble crops and limited seafood they had. And he learned recipes from his father, who cooked for seamen on the fishing boats.

Deserio said the same poverty-ridden circumstances drove Abruzzo to create its school for chefs years earlier. As soon as he could, he left Mola for cooking school in Milan.

Franco Iacoviello, partner in Primola and Girasole in New York and Casale del Sole in Mola di Bari, divides his time between countries and kitchens. When he was 15, he recalled, “the only two jobs were the fishing boats and the fields.” There was one restaurant in the town. The teenager admired a famous cruise line chef who retired to Mola and started teaching at a new culinary school in nearby Bari. Iacoviello joined his class of 10 to 15 pupils. “Now the school graduates thousands,” he said, “and many go to hotels and cruise line galleys.”

For both men the route to America came via hotels and cruise liners. Deserio jumped ship in Philadelphia in 1962. He worked in hotels in Rome, Sydney and New York before becoming executive chef of New York’s famed Sign of the Dove in the mid-1970s. He later held the same post at the new Il Cortile in the city’s Little Italy for 16 years.

Today the mayor of Mola di Bari, Nico Berlen, says you can create a genealogical line from the first Molese restaurant in America, adding, “Donato is a fine example of the trunk of the tree.”

Berlen says chefs from his town have an appreciation for many types of fresh foods because they grew up near both land and sea.

Michael L. Pesce, a judge of the Brooklyn Supreme Court and a legendary cook, is an unofficial adviser to virtually all the Molese restaurateurs, having come from the town himself at age 12. He said of his townsmen: “Here they had options — docks, factory or construction work. Some decided they didn’t like any of that and started in restaurants as dishwashers, waiters and line cooks. Slowly and gradually they grew and did their own thing.”

Pesce remembers the ’60s as a time when all Italian restaurants had the same menu. “Everything parmigiana, scallopine, marsala,” he said. “Ask if they had wine, they’d say, ‘White or red?’ If you said red, they’d say, ‘Good, we have a nice one cold for you.’ ”

The unofficial hiring hall for many was Il Cortile and Deserio.

“They were my countrymen, and I enjoyed helping them because I wanted to have Mola be a new place on the [culinary] map,” he said.

Pesce remembers dining at the restaurant when it seemed every other person there was Molese.

As the first and second waves of Mola di Bari emigrants came ashore, the very last thing they wanted to eat was more chicoria e fava, the “filler” they could not avoid in their youth. Ironically, at lunch in Puglia a few years before his death, the renowned Italian gastronome and author Vincenzo Buonassisi said the chicory and fava bean combination was thought to be an aphrodisiac.

“Legend has it,” he said, “that it stoked Hercules on his second night, with 10,000 or 12,000 women.”

Today, Mola di Bari is one of the richest towns in southern Italy. Tourist magazines herald the pristine character of the region of Puglia, and its healthful, simple food. Its olive oils are in demand worldwide, its wines are gaining in quality, complexity and commercial appeal, and its beaches and farmhouse “hotels” are more popular than ever.

On special church holiday weekends, the brilliantly decorated town square of Mola echoes with greetings in English and Italian as many homegrown American restaurateurs greet others spending a week or a month where they were born and inspired in their lives and careers by poverty and possibility.

Often among them is one of Mola’s most fervent boosters, Dominic Avelluto, who came in through Il Cortile as well. Later he would leave a broadcasting job with ABC to develop restaurant Mazzei in Manhattan. He now owns the much larger Hostaria Mazzei in New York’s suburban Westchester County. A few years prior to his change of course, his brother Giuseppe had taken Puglia’s seaside fare of simply prepared fish and vegetables west to Kansas City. Over time, he would open five restaurants and a bakeshop.

Domenic Avelluto said of his native town, “The main thing here is eating, and after they finish eating, they eat some more, and if they find some time in between, they eat then, too.”